Austin City Council forgoes homestead exemption increase

Austin house (KXAN Photo)
Austin house (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — City Council Member Ellen Troxclair calls it an important affordability tool the city has chosen not to use, forgoing an opportunity to increase the homestead exemption this year.

Here’s how the exemption works. It’s the amount of your home’s assessed value exempt from property taxes. Last June, Austin increased it from 6 to 8 percent. If you had a $400,000 home, Austin’s now record-high average home price, you subtract 6 percent and pay taxes on what’s left.

Increase that exemption to 8 percent and you pay taxes on an even smaller amount. The state cap is 20 percent. It’s something Travis County, Houston and Dallas have already done.

KXAN spoke with homeowners who say city leaders need to keep their word on addressing rising property taxes.

“Everything that costs me more every month to stay in my house is an affordability issue to me,” Mike Lavigne, with the Austin Neighborhoods Council said. “People lose their houses because they can’t pay taxes.”

Lavigne says he’s disappointed to see the homestead exemption missing from Thursday’s city council agenda. The meeting marks the last opportunity to increase the exemption before the state deadline on July 1. Troxclair posted the item to the city council message board but was unable to get enough co-sponsors to put the item on the agenda.

“It would be a pretty good faith effort to say that we recognize that expenses are going up,” Lavigne said. “I’m pretty sure most of the people that won their races for city council had it on a mailer somewhere that they were for lower property taxes.”

On Mayor Steve Adler’s campaign website, adopting the 20 percent homestead exemption was the first item listed under his affordability agenda. 

“Increasing the homestead exemption was a priority and remains a priority,” he told KXAN, saying he’s “real proud to have lead the charge to basically create for the very first time in Austin a meaningful homestead exemption and then to be able to add to it again last year.”

But we’re still a ways off from the 20 percent goal in four years. An ordinance, signed in June 2015 reads, “Council’s intent is to get to a full 20 percent homestead exemption within the next four years.”

“I think that voters have reasonable expectations that people they elect follow through on specific promises. Not only on the campaign trail, but reiterated through an ordinance last year,” Troxclair told KXAN. “This is one way that the council can reduce rising property tax, slow gentrification and protect seniors.”

Adler says this year just isn’t the year. “There’s just too much budget uncertainty for us to be able to move forward with it.”

Namely, a special session.

“And if the legislature makes it hard for us to — if it caps or pulls back, makes more difficult the city being able to raise money, then we’re spending money that we might not even have,” he explained, adding, “I think the fight for affordability is one that has to continue long-term in this city because it’s one of our most significant challenges.”

Adler says raising the homestead exemption another percent would eliminate $3 million from the city’s general fund, money some council members told KXAN last year they felt should be spent on other city programs and services.

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